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Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979)

The Whig Interpretation of History

Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)
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Html edition for ©Eliohs by Guido Abbattista - February 2002

Index | Preface | 1. Introduction | 2. The Underlying Assumption | 3. The Historical Process
4. History and Judgements of Value | 5. The Art of the Historian | 6. Moral Judgements in History


History has been taken out of the hands of the strolling minstrels and the pedlars of stories and has been accepted as a means by which we can gain more understanding of ourselves and our place in the sun – a more clear consciousness of what we are tending to and what we are trying to do. It would seem even that we have perhaps placed too much faith in the study of this aspect of ourselves, and we have let our thinking run to history with more enthusiasm than judgement. The historian like every other specialist is quick to over-step the bounds of his subject and elicit from history more than history can really give; and he is for ever tempted to bring his stories to a conclusiveness and his judgements to a finality that are not warranted by either the materials or the processes of his research. Behind all the fallacies of the whig historian there lies the passionate desire to come to a judgement of values, to make history answer questions and decide issues and to give the historian the last word in a controversy. He imagines that he is inconclusive unless he can give a verdict; and studying Protestant and Catholic in the sixteenth century he feels that loose threads are still left hanging unless he can show which party was in the right. He wishes to come to a general proposition that can be held as a truth demonstrated by history, a lesson that can be taken away and pondered apart from the accidents of a particular historical episode; and unless he can attain to something like this he feels that he has been working at a sum which had no answer, he has been wasting himself upon mere processes, he has been watching complication and change for the mere sake of complication and change. Yet this, which he seems to disparage, is precisely the function of the historian. The eliciting of general truths or of propositions claiming universal validity is the one kind of consummation which it is beyond the competence of history to achieve.

The historian is concerned with the concrete and is at home in the world of facts and people and happenings. The web spun out of the play of time and circumstance is everything to him. Accidents and conjunctures and curious juxtapositions of events are the very stuff of his story. All his art is to recapture a moment and seize upon particulars and fasten down a contingency. The theorist who loves principles for themselves may discuss them freely, for he discusses them so to speak in the air; but the historian must bring them to earth for he only studies them in other men’s lives; he must see principles caught amongst chance and accident; he must watch their logic being tricked and entangled in the events of a concrete world. The historian is essentially the observer, watching the moving scene. Like the traveller he describes an unknown country to us who cannot visit it; and like the traveller he deals with the tangible, the concrete, the particular; he is not greatly concerned with philosophy or abstract reasoning. Were he too much a philosopher he would be perhaps too impatient of the waste and repetitiveness and triviality of all the things that it is his business to notice, and perhaps like Thomas Carlyle he would imprint too much of his own mind upon the shape of events. History indeed is a form of descriptive writing as books of travel are. It is concerned with the processes of life rather than with the meaning or purpose or goal of life. It is interested in the way in which ideals movement and give a turn to events rather than in the ultimate validity of the ideals themselves. One might say that rather than being interested in light and the nature of light, the historian studies merely its refractions as it breaks up in the external world – he is concerned to examine colours, he is interested in a whole universe of colour. His training and habits of mind and all the methods of his research fasten him down to the particular and the concrete and make him essentially an observer of the events of the external world. For this cause it has generally happened that historians have reflected little upon the nature of things and even the nature of their own subject, and have indeed what they feel to be a healthy kind of distrust of such disembodied reasoning. They have been content as a rule to accept current views of the place of history in the scheme of knowledge, to apply a hasty common sense to the problems that arise and to make rather facile analogies from the other arts and sciences. They have critically examined and placed upon a scientific basis only one aspect of their study, and that the concrete side – the use of sources and the weighing of evidence – and they have not been so careful in the establishment of a system in regard to their organization of a historical story, or in regard to their processes of inference upon their subject. They are not happy when they leave the concrete world and start reasoning in a general way.

The value of history lies in the richness of its recovery of the concrete life of the past. It is a story that cannot be told in dry lines, and its meaning cannot be conveyed in a species of geometry. There is not an essence of history that can be got by evaporating the human and the personal factors, the incidental or momentary or local things, and the circumstantial elements, as though at the bottom of the well there were something absolute, some truth independent of time and circumstance. There may an essence of Protestantism and a formula that lies at the root of the matter, but there is no essence of the history of the Reformation, no formula that can take the place of the whole story. When he describes the past the historian has to recapture the richness of the moments, the humanity of the men, the setting of external circumstances, and the implications of events; and far from sweeping them away, he piles up the concrete, the particular, the personal; for he studies the changes of things which change and not the permanence of the mountains and the stars. To recover the personality of Martin Luther in a full rich concrete sense – including of course all that some people might consider to be the accidents and non-essentials – is not only the aim of the historian, but is an end in itself; and here the thing which is unhistorical is to imagine that we can get the essence apart from the accidents; it is to think of Luther in terms of a formula, "the founder of Protestantism", "the apostle of religious liberty". The whole process of historical study is a movement towards historical research – it is to carry us from the general to the particular, from the abstract to the concrete, from the thesis that the Reformation led to liberty to an actual vision of all the chances and changes which brought about the modern world.

The fourth century of the Christian era, for example, represents an age when important things were happening, and paganism completed its decline, while Christianity entered upon its victory. It is obvious that great and palpable human issues were being raised and decided in these years, and special varieties of human relationship arose, giving life and experience a peculiar intensity. One cannot avoid asking what men were like when they were breaking with an old order of things, changing Gods and putting on new habits and making new adjustments to life. It must be interesting to learn how such a human crisis would present itself in a single soul, in a home, a village, a city, a court. What did men think of an emperor who accepted the guidance and even the reproof of bishops, and refused to grant state-aid for the service of the ancient gods? What kind of rapprochements took place between declining paganism and rising Christianity? What did the Christians borrow from pagan rites and fêtes and ideas – what consciously and what unawares? What was the feeling of the old men when the young were forgetting their gods, and in the after-day, when evil fell, did not some men take their Christianity with a misgiving? It is easy to see the fight between Christianity and paganism as a play of forces and to discuss it so to speak in the abstract; but much more illuminating to watch it as the interplay of personalities and people, with the four winds of heaven blowing around them; much more interesting if we can take the general statement with which we began, the mere formula for what happened in this age, and pursue it in its concrete incidence till we discover into what manifold detail it differentiates itself, and learn how various were its workings in actual life, how surprising even its byplay and the side-issues which it raised, how rich its underlying complexity and its implications in human story. It is along this road that the historian carries us, away from the world of general ideas.

It is not for him to give a philosophical explanation of what happens in time and space. Indeed any history that he writes ought to be as capable of varied philosophical interpretation as life itself seems to be. In the last resort the historian’s explanation of what has happened is not a piece of general reasoning at all. He explains the French Revolution by discovering exactly what it was that occurred; and if at any point we need further elucidation all that he can do is to take us into greater detail, and make us see in still more definite concreteness what really did take place. In doing this he is bound to lead us to something which we never could have inferred. And this is his justification; it is the romance of historical research. We, after a survey of the Reformation, may seek to deduce from general principles what must have been the reasons for its occurrence; but there is all the difference in the world between this kind of philosophising and a close and concrete examination of how Martin Luther’s great decision came to be made. This accounts for the air of unreality which hangs around much of our general history when it has been compiled with too great impatience of historical research. The result of historical study is precisely the demonstration of the fallacy of our arm-chair logic – the proof of the poverty of all this kind of speculation when compared with the surprise of what actually did take place. And the historian’s passion for manuscripts and sources is not the desire to confirm facts and dates or to correct occasional points of error in the historical story, but the desire to bring himself into genuine relationship with the actual, with all the particularities of chance and chance – the desire to see at first hand how an important decision comes to be made. So the last word of the historian is not some fine firm general statement; it is a piece of detailed research. It is a study of the complexity that underlies any generalization that we can make.

Above all it is not the role of the historian to come to what might be called judgements of value. He may try to show how men came to differ in religion, but he can no more adjudicate between religions than he can adjudicate between systems of philosophy; and though he might show that one religion has been more favourable in its sociological consequences than another though even – which is much more difficult – he might think he has shown that the one is bound to be better in its ultimate consequences through time – still it is not for him to beg the question of the assessment of material losses against what might be considered spiritual and eternal gains. His role is to describe; he stands impartial between Christian and Mohammedan; he is interested in neither one religion nor the other except as they are entangled in human lives. Though he might describe, if he can untwist them, the economic consequences of the Inquisition in modern Spain, though he might even show that the Inquisition was in some way responsible for reducing Spain from the ranks of the great powers, still he has not shown that it was fatal to happiness, and he cannot beg questions concerning what is the good life. At the end of it all the Spaniard might retort that the Inquisition which robbed him of greatness was the institution which once gave him prestige and power; and it is proper that the historian should be driven to pursue his inquiries a step further, and ask why the Inquisition which in one set of circumstances helped the power of Spain should in another set of circumstances have contributed to its downfall. He is back in his proper place when he takes us away from simple and absolute judgements and by returning to the historical context entangles everything up again. He is back in his proper place when he tell us that a thing is good or harmful according to circumstances, according to the interactions that are produced. If history can do anything it is to remind us of those complications that undermine our certainties, and to show us that all our judgements are merely relative to time and circumstance.

There is one argument against the whig interpretation of history which is paradoxical and is in conflict with all our habits of mind, for it takes away what many might feel to be the virtue and the utility of history, and it robs the historian of his most trenchant attitudes and his grandest note of finality. It lies in the fact that we can never assert that history has proved any man right in the long run. We can never say that the ultimate issue, the succeeding course of events, or the lapse of time have proved that Luther was right against the Pope or that Pitt was wrong against Charles James Fox. We cannot say that the ultimate consequences of Luther’s action have justified his purpose or his conduct; for the modern secularised world has no more vindicated Luther’s mastering purpose or his ideal of a religious society than it vindicates the medieval ideal of the Popes; and in any case we cannot work out the ultimate consequences of Luther’s conduct unless we wish to imitate the schoolboy who, writing on the results of Columbus’s discovery of America, enumerated amongst other things the execution of Charles I, the war of the Spanish Succession and the French Revolution. By great labour we can perhaps track down the displacements which the Lutheran revolt produced in Luther’s own day; we may be able to disentangle something roughly like cause and effects in the transition from one generation to the next; but very soon we can trace out nothing more, we can only see the results of everything else that was producing change at that period; we can only focus ourselves upon the new situation as a whole and watch fresh displacements being produced now by fresh conjunctures. The most that we can say is that if Luther did ill in his day, the evil for which he was responsible was part of the situation that men in future had to face; and that his successors, working upon the new state of the problem, would set their purposes anew and still make all things work together for good, though henceforward it might have to be some new good that they set their hearts upon. When the sins and errors of an age have made the world impossible to live in, the next generation, seeking to make life tolerable again, may be able to find no way save by the surrender of cherished ideals, and so may find themselves compelled to cast about for new dreams and purposes. An important aspect of the historical process is the work of the new generation for ever playing providence over even the disasters of the old, and being driven to something like a creative act for the very reason that life on the old terms has become impossible. It represents a complication that may be hidden from our sight if the story is telescoped into a whig version of abridged history. For this reason we have to be on our guard when the whig historian tells us for example that the Reformation is justified because it led ultimately to liberty; we must avoid the temptation to make what seem to be the obvious inferences from this statement; for it is possible to argue against the whig historian that the ultimate issue which he applauds only came in the long run from the fact that, in its immediate results, the Reformation was so disastrous to liberty .

The Reformation which is so often regarded as a result and continuation of the Renaissance – a parallel movement of man’s expanding mind – might also be looked upon as a reassertion of religious authority in the world, a revolt against the secularisation, the laxness and the sins of the time. Luther, who appeals to us so strongly as an innovator and a rebel against constituted authority, was behind everything else the religious leader, in a sense the revivalist, whose rebellion was only an incident in his great attempt to establish right religion in the world. Luther and Calvin were both alike in that they attacked the papal and medieval conception of the religious society; but it is doubtful whether the Biblical Commonwealth for which they laboured would have been nay less severe in its control of the individual, or would have commended itself to these men if it had been less severe. And although the Bible has proved to be the most flexible of authorities and the most capable of progressive interpretation, it has yet to be demonstrated that the Reformers who used it to confound the Popes did not regard it as a more firm and rigid authority than the Roman tradition or the canon law, of which they seem to have condemned precisely the innovations and the development. Luther, when he was making his development of religious doctrine, was not hindered but was generously encouraged by his superiors in the Catholic Church, and he was not molested when, like so many other preachers of his day, he fulminated in his sermons against the common attitude to indulgences. One might say that the very action which precipitated the break with Rome was prompted by Luther’s own intolerance of what he deemed wrong religion in other people. It might be argued that what Luther rebelled against was not the severity but the laxity of the Popes .

 In any case the sixteenth century was a time when any serious error concerning divine things was almost universally regarded as blasphemy; when the state and the secular rulers could not imagine that religious nonconformity might be consistent with public order; and when a great theological controversy was calculated to make religious militant and fanatical. One might have predicted that in the sixteenth century a religious movement which assumed large proportions and implied a schism in the Catholic Church would almost make the continent run with blood; particularly if it provoked by reaction a revival of religious fanaticism in Rome itself. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Luther’s break with the Papacy – for which the Popes themselves were so greatly responsible, since they seemed determined to drive him to revolt – had disastrous results in the succeeding generation and was terrible in its effects on life and society. I do not know who could deny that the Reformation provoked a revival of religious passions, religious fanaticism and religious hatreds which were unlike the world to which things had seemed to be moving in the year 1500; and when we look at Erasmus and Machiavelli and the spirit of the Renaissance we must at least wonder whether freedom of thought and modern rationalism might not have had an easier course if Luther had never resuscitated militant religion. Even though it might be argued that the terrible wars which devastated so many countries during a whole century were not by any means solely due to their ostensible religious cause, it is none the less certain that religion contributed to them their fanaticism and intensity, and the introduction of the religious element neither helped to clarify the other issues, nor tended to make them more capable of compromise. It would be as great a mistake to deny the genuineness of religious fanaticism in this period, as to ascribe all the horrors and evils to the iniquity of Roman Catholics; for the real seat of the tragedy lay in the ideas which Luther and Calvin and the Popes held in common and held with equal intensity – the idea that society and government should be founded on the basis of the one authoritative religion, that all thought should be dominated by religion, and that within this religious society no heresy or blasphemy or abomination should be allowed to rear itself up in defiance of God. There is little point in blaming either Luther or the Popes for a view of religious authority which was connected with their fundamental assumption concerning society, or in attacking them for a belief in persecution which was perhaps only the reflex side of their religious certainty; but we can say that when such assumptions were so deeply rooted in the minds of almost all religious men, a movement like the Reformation, working in direct antagonism to the hitherto recognized and constituted authority, was bound to be disastrous in its terrestrial consequences. Catholics were not alone responsible for the tragedy and the devastation of the religious struggles; we can only say that Catholics and Protestants alike, working upon assumptions which they held in common, produced by their clash, by their very coexistence in one society and in Christendom, wars and bitterness and disasters which are too terrible to contemplate.

If we focus our vision afresh and fix our attention on the post-Reformation world, we see a generation faced with a new weight of problems, and confronted particularly by the strange problem that arose out the coexistence of two forms of religion in one society – what we should call the problem of religious minorities. We can see novel experiments being tried – a great attempt to make life possible and tolerable again; and it is almost amusing to see the measures to which men had to resort because they could not escape the fundamental assumption that church and society should be coextensive – they could not imagine that a government should be anything but the first servant of the one true faith. A long road had to be taken before religion could be regarded as an optional matter for the individual, or churches could be accepted as voluntary societies within the state. Elizabeth of England tried to secure "comprehension" by a via media, so that one inclusive religious organization could cover the whole country. Catherine de’ Medici, failing comprehension, was willing to tolerate a religious minority, somewhat as an anomaly, almost as a "state within the state" . Toleration was enforced at times as a suspension of the problem, being regarded at first, very often, as an interim measure – an attempt to reach a modus vivendi until the healing of the church. Parties like that of the Politiques in France might still acknowledge that persecution was the religious ideal and one religion alone the true one, but decided that persecution could not be carried out on the scale of a massacre, and said that the state must not be wrecked for the sake of religion. As the struggles proceeded the state found the opportunity to rise into the position of adjudicator, while the religious bodies tended to look like conflicting parties within the state; the secular government, instead of regarding itself as the servant of the one true faith, might even stand out as the guardian of the interests of society, imposing peace upon religious factions. In all these ways toleration emerges with the return of religious indifference. It comes as a secular ideal. It is the re-assertion of the rights of society and the rights of this world against religions which by their warfare and by the absoluteness of their claims were acting in defiance of social consequences. Elizabeth of England, Catherine de’ Medici, William the Silent, Wallenstein, and all those parties which in one country or another adopted the attitude of the Politiques, attempted to heal the sorrows of the time and to overcome the Reformation tragedy by subordinating religion to policy. They helped the cause of liberty because they were too worldly, and from the point of view of their own age they were perhaps too wicked, to support one religion or another in defiance of social consequences, and in disregard of a political good.

But all the time religious bodies themselves were altering and were being affected by changes in the world. From the first all parties had cried out for freedom of conscience against the dominating church; and each had attacked the persecutions of the other; but Protestants, arising as a minority in so many countries, had the greater experience of this manner of protesting. Some people were bound ultimately to arrive at the view that all persecution even on behalf of the truth was wicked. The Bible became a more fluid and flexible authority than Luther or Calvin had imagined it to be. Protestantism broke up into more divisions and parties than its original leaders would have liked to see. These sects could not for ever go on persecuting one another when the Papacy menaced them all. The Protestants were in a better position than the Catholics to learn the relativity of the various forms of religion, and to regard church organization as the subject of experiment, and doctrine as the subject of inquiry. Protestants came to tolerate one another, though it, was long before most of them could tolerate a Catholic. There emerged ideas like that of the Independents in England, who advocated a congregational system that permitted of religious diversity within the state. Toleration, which had been a secular policy, a political necessity, was turned into a religious ideal, and churches came to take their place as voluntary societies within the state. Instead of the old ideal of the state as one uniform and coherent religious society – the ideal of Lutheran, Calvinist. Anabaptist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic – there grew up the principle of religious liberty, the idea of the secular state within which men could join any religious group or choose not to belong to any at all, the view that a government must be indifferent to men’s choice of church or religion. The original Protestants had brought new passion into the ideal of the state as a religious society and they had set about to discipline this society more strictly than ever upon the pattern of the Bible. The later Protestants reversed a fundamental purpose and became the allies of individualism and the secular state.

At the back of everything, moving men to this change of purpose, this revision of ideals, was the tragedy of the Reformation, the havoc caused by the coexistence of two forms of religion in the same society. It was because the results of the Reformation had been so disastrous to life and liberty that people were driven to re-examine their principles and were compelled even to alter religious ideals. The truth is that if in a certain generation men are bitterly quarrelling over the claims of one religion and another, the havoc may become so serious that the very state of the problem is changed, and men slide into a world of new issues and are diverted to new preoccupations. The question that exercises the next generation will be how to secure some sort of religious peace, how at least to contrive that religious controversy shall not spread ruin over the world. The whig historian, assuming a false continuity in events, overlooks this shifting of the problem and ignores this transition between one generation and another. He likes to imagine religious liberty issuing beautifully out of Protestantism when in reality it emerges painfully and grudgingly out of something quite different, out of the tragedy of the post-Reformation world. He imagines that Luther has been vindicated by the course of subsequent events when in fact it was the generations after Luther which performed the work of reconciliation, it was the heritage of disaster itself which drove men later to a creative act. The whig historian thinks that the course of history, the passage of centuries can give judgement on a man or an age or a movement. In reality there is only one thing that history can say on this matter, and this itself is so commonplace that it can almost be reduced to a piece of tautology. It is, that provided disaster is not utterly irretrievable – provided a generation is not destroyed or a state wiped entirely from the map – there is no sin or error or calamity can take place but succeeding generations will make the best of it; and though it be a Black Death or a Fire of London that comes as a scourge and a visitation. men will still make virtue of necessity and use the very downfall of the old world as the opportunity for making a new, till the whig historian looking back upon the catastrophe can see only the acquired advantages and the happy readjustments. So in the result the whig historian will be tempted to forget the sufferings of a generation, and will find it easy to assert that the original tragedy was no tragedy at all. We of the present-day can be thankful for the religious quarrels of the sixteenth century, as we are thankful for the Black Death and the Fire of London – because the very disasters drove men to what was tantamount to a creative act; and we, coming in the after-flow of the centuries, can see only the good that was produced. But we are deceived by the optical illusion if we deny that when Luther rebelled against the Catholic Church and the Popes so deliberately hounded him into rebellion they did not between them produce a tragedy which meant the sacrifice of more than one generation.

Index | Preface | 1. Introduction | 2. The Underlying Assumption | 3. The Historical Process
4. History and Judgements of Value | 5. The Art of the Historian | 6. Moral Judgements in History